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Examining the likelihood of the NBA resuming the 2019-20 season amid the coronavirus pandemic

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Without a vaccination to ensure health and safety, can a workable solution be found?

In this photo illustration the American National Basketball... Photo Illustration by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

After perusing through as many relevant articles on COVID-19 as possible, I keep circling back to two options: Either pro sports leagues are going to have to pick a date and take a calculated risk by constructing some sort of bubble environments — most assuredly leaving fans at home — or the entire population is going to have to wait for the release of a legitimate vaccine. With billions of dollars at stake and millions of people desperate to restart parts of the economy, guess which path everyone is going to attempt to traverse?

If you’ve missed the news, many are in the process of gearing up for athletic competition to return sometime in the summer/early fall. President Trump said over the weekend that he expects the NFL season to kick off as scheduled in September. The PGA Tour has announced the Masters will take place in November, with the US Open and PGA Championship preceding it in September and August, respectively. As for the NBA, it remains in a holding pattern, but hope remains alive that it will restart in June or July. And the Association isn’t slated to be the guinea pig. Word came last night that Major League Baseball is looking to get players into training camps sometime in May and games would begin soon thereafter.

There is healthy skepticism, of course, and we’ll lay out some problems in a moment, but recall that ESPN’s Brian Windhorst expressed plenty of pessimism over the weekend. Since then, a lot of others have weighed in on the topic, including Tom Haberstroh with his article, NBA’s ‘Bubble’ Idea Has Major Holes, to Zach Lowe and Bill Simmons discussing the likelihood of a canceled season on The Lowe Post.

“I’m not very optimistic about the season starting any time in the next two, three, four months,” Josh Hart recently said to Marc Stein. “It’s just too hard. Unless they were somehow able to build a huge hotel and an arena and put a bubble over it in some random place somewhere, that’s my only guess how to actually finish the season in the next several months. You really do have to create a bubble.”

On the flip side, there are those who still believe that the remainder of the 2019-20 season can be saved, provided the country finds itself trending well down the backside of the COVID-19 curve to the point the line has been flattened. Joel Meyers touched on this on the latest Pelicans podcast, but he is not alone and there’s strong consensus that if the season can resume, all the players and teams would converge on one city.

“Las Vegas has been a destination that has been discussed, built around the idea of literally perhaps using a casino, playing games in potentially a ballroom with courts,” Adrian Wojnarowski said on ESPN’s SportsCenter. “There’s lots of different scenarios, almost all of which would be built around the idea of a return without fans in the stands.”

Similarly, Marc Berman previously reported in a New York Post article that “NBA executives still cling to hope of arranging a one-site, fan-less, 16-team playoff and a five-to-seven-game regular-season prelude, according to multiple NBA sources,” and several players corroborated this theory, including Austin Rivers and Jared Dudley. Although there’s been several bumps in the road since the spread of this optimism, don’t expect a rush to judgement in either direction.

I continue to hold the opinion that a resumption of play should not be ruled out — because we are not guaranteed tomorrow either, and I divulged some of my thinking on David Grubb’s radio show, Hard In The Paint, last week.

The biggest hurdles will be to establish a legitimate perimeter and set up essential and timely monitoring stations. Quarantine off the players and other essential team personnel, television production crews, and all those necessary to feeding, protecting and maintaining life inside Bio-Dome-like environment. You seal off this group for a period of time from the rest of the world while constantly testing the health of everyone on the inside. Heck, let the players and the rest of the temporary residents bring their immediate families as they’re probably not doing much else at the moment — you know the larger Vegas hotels have the capacity to hold thousands.

One important caveat that cannot be overlooked, scientific research and innovation are going to need to lend a helping hand and that topic was a major talking point yesterday as evidenced in Baxter Holmes article, NBA, Players Union Assessing Potential COVID-19 Rapid-Test Options.

Multiple league sources close to the situation said the league and players union have been looking at what those familiar with the matter describe as “diabetes-like” blood testing in which someone could, with the prick of a finger, be tested quickly, and results could be gained inside of 15 minutes.

The Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories began shipping its rapid-response tests across the U.S. last week, according to a Washington Post report. The tests, which have been approved by the FDA, are said to deliver results in five-to-13 minutes.

The league sources stressed that this matter is in the exploratory phase and that there is no clear timetable as to when the efficacy of any such device might be proven. They also stressed that advances in science and medicine are proceeding at a rapid pace, with collaboration across borders, which offers hope that breakthrough solutions could be possible much sooner than later.

While it is feasible to start building a bubble, assembling safeguards and writing up all procedural protocols, the threat of someone in quarantine testing positive for the virus will remain a legitimate fear. In all likelihood, a new infection could prompt another shutdown. Even if an individual case is quickly discovered and isolated, would everyone else be placed on lockdown as the rest of the bubble’s population is tested immediately and all potentially contaminated areas are cleaned up before another positive case emerges? And how would the NBA proceed from there in any scenario? Would a player be forced to sit out x amount of weeks and play resumes once an all clear is given? Lastly, how much time should the league devote to this experiment, hiccups and all?

Before weighing these types of questions too heavily, consider we’ve witnessed problems in other parts of the world where they’re much further along on the COVID-19 timeline, yet those professional leagues have been unable to get to that first game. The Chinese Basketball Association’s start-up date has been pushed back a few times, and Japanese baseball suffered a setback when several players tested positive for the virus.

Experts have warned that much of the world could be in store with many waves of infection before a vaccination is discovered. The United States has not yet reached its first apex, but other countries — ones that were much more vigilant and implemented greater safeguards the first time round — are seeing spikes in positive cases again after relaxing social distancing, thinking they were ready to resume normal life.

This is more bad news, for many people seem to believe that once we get through this grim month or two, the nightmare will be over. But the virus is resilient, and health experts warn that this may be just the first wave of what may be many waves of infections until we get a vaccine sometime in 2021.

Already, Japan after initial success is seeing a surge of infections, while China and South Korea have struggled with imported infections; that seems inevitable as economies restart and travel resumes.

“We’re just looking at this first wave,” noted Dr. Murray. He estimates that in June, some 95 percent of Americans will still be susceptible to the virus.

Re-read this last line: Some 95 percent of Americans will still be susceptible to the virus. This very pertinent piece of information, in my opinion, singlehandedly assures life will not return to normal for the foreseeable future and thus why bubble environments are the only option to resume sporting events. We are light years away from achieving herd immunity — the next best thing to the discovery of a vaccine. When factoring that the quickest estimates pinpoint a vaccination being 12-18 months away, it should give you pause in thinking ‘let’s just cancel this NBA season and just start things up normally in September for the 2020-21 campaign’ as a suitable answer.

Of course, any setbacks in a segment of the population shouldn’t mean returning to square one. Even the revered Dr. Fauci, believes the country should be in better position to handle subsequent waves of infection.

The top infectious disease expert in the country said Monday he predicts there will be another coronavirus outbreak in the fall, but expects the United States to be better prepared to combat the virus.

“In fact, I would anticipate that that would actually happen because of the degree of transmissibility,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said when asked about a possible reemergence of the virus in the fall during a news conference in the White House Rose Garden.

Fauci added, however, that if another outbreak were to occur, things “are going to be very, very different.”

However, a distinction must be made. The United States is in no way shape or form closely following in the footsteps of those countries preparing to restart professional sports. Many across this nation were slow to accept the need for social distancing and lay out other strict guidelines — there remain some states who have yet to make any coronavirus declarations that amend their way of life. Plus, how can we not have doubts about moving forward when the leadership at the top has yet to provide readily available tests to the entire population which would pave the way for contact tracing and other safety nets to minimize future pockets of outbreaks?

Jeff Passan and Alden Gonzalez noted in an ESPN article yesterday that it’s difficult to imagine MLB being able to soon mimic South Korea’s KBO — hence why the announcement of a May timeline to start things back up feels ridiculously optimistic.

It is a society that trades short-term personal liberties for safety, emphasizes public over self, rewards discipline and relies on functional government policies that value process and adhere to epidemiological tenets. It is why, regardless of KBO’s return date, it might not provide much of a road map for MLB: The United States has failed to replicate almost all of Korea’s institutional successes that allow the KBO to even consider playing again.

Ready for some more bad news? The bigger issues that I’ve come to learn in recent days is, this novel coronavirus is not yet fully understood, but it is showing some shiny new teeth.

While the reinfection argument doesn’t seem to hold much merit, it is worrisome that we don’t know roughly how long persons remain immune to COVID-19 after developing antibodies. Experts think it might be 2-3 years, but they’re not certain. Also, there exist reports that the standard 14-day quarantine window may not be enough, which must be considered by the NBA before throwing a bunch of people together under the same roof.

A team of scientists from five universities in China and Canada released a study in mid-March that found that nearly 1 in 8 patients had incubation times longer than 14 days, leading them to question whether current quarantine recommendations are optimal.

“As the outbreak is fast-moving in the world, based on this analysis we recommended that an extension of adults’ quarantine period to 17 or 21 days could be more effective,” they wrote.

We are super early into a pandemic so no one is going to have all the right answers for probably months or longer. Therefore, the NBA and the rest of the professional leagues are going to need to remain highly flexible but cannot break and have their bubble experiments, or whatever plans of action they follow, fall down like a house of cards because lives are at stake for the sake of entertainment and saving untold dollars.

In this new reality where some prominent motives are questionable at best, Adam Silver is mindful of the obstacles ahead and it’s good to read that the health and safety of the whole is at the forefront of his thoughts. Therein lies the rub though. There is going to be some risk assumed with any resumption of play, however small, that the Commissioner must be willing to take — whether that’s restarting this season or jumping on to the next.

Due to its vast resources, previous experiences of hosting one-site events and the aid of science, I really want to believe that the NBA will be able to handle all of the challenges associated with resuming league play in the middle of a pandemic. Shielding athletes from the general public has been done before, such as with Olympic village communities, but obviously not on this scale and with a single misstep likely proving too costly.

A contagious virus is tearing through the fabric of society without an available vaccine. I, like you and millions of others, miss basketball for all sorts of selfish reasons (Lonzo Ball alley-oops to Zion Williamson!), but the NBA making the right call is paramount.